I don’t use the term chronic insomnia lightly. Have you ever heard of a kid who fakes naps during preschool just to placate the teacher? That was me.
Despite my parents letting me stay up to 9-10pm when I was 8-years old—way later than most of my peers (thank you Dad, you rock!)—I inevitably drove them crazy by waking up at the crack of dawn (literally) on weekends ready to kick off the day.
In high school I averaged maybe 5 hours of sleep a night. Even today I rely on the occasional Ambien to make sure I sleep through a flight or get enough rest the night before an important event.
My insomnia is multifaceted. I have trouble falling asleep because I am very sensitive to light (sometimes I joke that I have invisible eyelids). I’m also very sensitive to sounds and have difficulty getting comfortable.
Once I’m asleep, it’s also way too easy to wake me up. And once I wake up, falling back asleep in less than two hours is nearly impossible. I wake up at any hint of light entering the room, or any abnormal noise.
I’ve tried melatonin, tryptophan, St. John’s wort, camomile, kava kava and antihistamines. Most of them just make me extra miserable because I get groggy and drowsy, but still can’t fall asleep. Ambien has been the only prescription sleep aid that works for me without major side effects, but it is not for everyone and I certainly did not want to rely on it for my day-to-day sleep hygiene.
But with a combination of these techniques, I’ve been able to control my insomniac tendencies and boost my sleep to a solid seven hours a night.
Tips To Cure Insomnia
Get on a consistent sleeping schedule
This one is probably the most important. The circadian rhythms that control your sleep-wake cycle originate in a part of your brain called the hypothalamus (specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus, for you neuroscience geeks).
These neurons are sensitive to light and work to sync your biological clock to regular light-dark hours. The more consistent these are, the stronger your body will respond to natural circadian rhythms and the easier it will be to fall asleep when you’re supposed to.
No interactive screen time 1 hour before bed
As mentioned above, bright light can impact your circadian rhythms and staring into a computer screen late into the night can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Working and other mental activity can also keep your mind alert and prevent it from relaxing enough to fall asleep.
I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to unplug when you’re a workaholic, but a good night’s sleep does more for my productivity than I could ever achieve in the 12th or 14th hour of my workday, so I’ve learned to disengage well before bedtime.
Though I haven’t had any problems from watching TV or a movie, it’s best to stay away from any devices that require input from you for the last hour before bed. This means you should turn off the computers, smart phones, video games and tablets, no matter how badly you want to level up. Instead, try to quiet your mind by taking a bath, reading a book, having some herbal tea, cleaning up the house, listening to music or practicing meditation.
Don’t eat too late
Eating close to bed time, particularly a high-calorie, heavy meal, is associated with poorer sleep quality. I’ve also noticed this in myself, and when I avoid late night eating I get better, more consistent sleep. If you’re hungry, try drinking a glass of water and going to bed on an empty stomach instead. You certainly won’t starve to death.
The best sleep I ever got was when I was marathon training at 5am every weekday before school. I fell asleep like clockwork at 10:30pm every night. It was glorious.
Heavy exercise is certainly a great way to invoke sound sleep, but even moderate activity like walking 10,000 steps each day can make a big difference in sleep quality. If you aren’t sure how much activity you’re getting, a Fitbit pedometer might be a good investment.
No caffeine after 1pm
This one was hard for me to believe. I’d been a heavy coffee drinker from a young age, and never thought it effected my sleep one way or another. If I was really tired during finals, coffee never seemed to help much and there were a few times when I fell asleep not too long after having a double espresso.
I’m not sure if I changed or if my sleep cycle was just so messed up that I couldn’t detect relevant differences, but now that I’ve switched to drinking mainly tea I’ve noticed that if I drink any caffeine too late in the day it is harder to fall asleep. I try not to drink coffee after 12pm, but 1pm is sometimes more realistic.
Use a white noise machine
My old apartment was just two doors down from a bustling freeway off ramp, and as you can imagine the traffic noise was constant. As someone who is very sensitive to noise, this posed a tremendous problem.
I’ve tried sleeping with ear plugs, but I have small ears and find them very uncomfortable. The solution that works best for me to control noise disturbances is the Sleepmate, a white noise machine that is quiet enough to ignore but drowns out most other ambient noise. This thing is a lifesaver if you’re stuck in a noisy neighborhood.
Black out shades or sleep mask
I realized early on that I’m sensitive to even the slightest amount of light in a room, even small ones like a laptop charging light.
If you’ve taken care of all the light sources inside your bedroom but are still bothered by light that sneaks in under the door or through the window, consider getting some black out shades or a sleep mask. The shades work great but can be expensive and kind of ugly. If you go with a mask, I find that the cheaper, less cushy ones are the most comfortable. Mine looks a lot like this one for under $2.
Don’t drink too much alcohol
Though a small nightcap can often help me relax and fall asleep faster, too much alcohol is proven to disturb sleep and can cause you to wake up early. If you like to party, keep in mind that it may be impacting your life in more negative ways than you think.
Though light, noise and bad habits all play a role in my sleep problems, I’m convinced that at the root of it all is a wandering mind. These other factors just add levels of distraction to my already overstimulated brain.
In our plugged in world, constant interruptions are making it progressively difficult to keep your attention on a single task long enough to get it done. For me, the nightly task that eludes me is sleep.
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis (e.g. spending a few seconds a day focusing on my breathing or taking the time to eat a bite of food slowly with my eyes closed) gives me the power to truly relax my mind when I’m trying to fall asleep rather than letting it drift to all the things I need to get done the following day.
Mindfulness isn’t easy, but the only way to get better is through practice. Whenever you’re waiting for an elevator, standing in line, walking up stairs, taking a bite of food, take a few seconds to reflect on where you are and how your body feels. Focus on a few breaths, in and out, and get accustomed to letting go of your worries. The longer you can sustain this practice the easier it will be to let go of your problems and get a good night’s sleep.
Herbal Remedies and Supplements for Insomnia
To fix the biological clock long term, diet is key; B vitamins, thyroid health, and exercise are paramount. But the right combination of the following herbal remedies will knock almost anyone out at least for the first few nights they're used, without the pharmaceutical side effects.
Our bodies require tryptophan, an amino acid, to make serotonin and melatonin. can help you fall asleep and improve your quality of sleep by lengthening the time you spend in deep sleep. In addition, studies have shown an increase in alertness upon waking.
also aids in sleep onset as well as quality of sleep. The best results are found when combining valerian root with melatonin or hops. Take 400-500 mg at bedtime.
is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland. It does not help with the length of sleep or sleep quality, but it does help with sleep onset. Side effects may include nightmares and daytime drowsiness. Dosage ranges from 1-10 mg.
is another sleep aid that improves sleep and aids in sleep onset. It works well with valerian extract and the combination may help increase alpha brain waves.
minimizes sleep disturbances and reduces irritability and mood swings
clears anxiety and restores the body to a more peaceful state
is known as an adaptogen that block stress messages in the body, promoting relaxation and peacefulness.
and leaf soothes anxiety and has sedative properties
promotes calmness and increases the body's ability to adapt to stress. It also acts as a sedative for aches and pain
Once you get your biological clock reset, your new sleep habits require discipline, but you will reap the benefits of healthy, restful sleep. The trick to having a set sleep schedule (besides health) is all in the wakeup time. If 7 a.m. is when you want to wake up, then that's when you wake up, no matter what, for the next 6 weeks.
Insomnia tends to be a precursor to, or a symptom of depression (see How Candida Leads to Depression) or thyroid problems (see Natural Remedies for Hypothyroidism). It takes time and patience, both of which are hard to come by when you're chronically tired, but insomnia can be remedied. Check out Natural Remedies for Insomnia for more on insomnia.
And get off the caffeine!